On the Slate

May 1, 2002


No more monkeying around

Infinite Monkeys and MicroTainment Plus International have joined together under the banner of DocuTainment Productions – Toronto, Canada’s newest prodco. The four principles heading up the new company are Garry Blye (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, etc.), Howard Bernstein (Canada AM, The Journal), Mark Shekter (Laugh-In, Traders, A&E Biography and Investigative Reports), and Lon Appleby (The Journal, and former UPI reporter). The new company has a production slate that already runs to over US$5 million.

Will You Marry Me? is a series which will begin in June with a one-hour special on the Life Network in Canada and continue for six more half-hour episodes through to January. During the series’ run, viewers will meet couples on the verge of engagement, catching all the action as the groom pops the question. Will she say yes? Discover the lengths grooms will go to in order to make the event memorable. The special has a budget of about $160,000, with the remaining episodes coming in at about $63,000 (about $660,000 total).

If the marriage thing doesn’t work out, there’s always the army. DocuTainment is working on the pilot episode of Military Machines for Discovery Canada. If all goes according to plan, the production will become a 7 x 1-hour series that will wrap as early as January. The series will choose 13 pieces of weapon technology that have changed the course of history – both on the field of battle and in the political realm. From ancient clubs to the most modern killing technology, Military Machines has it all, for a relatively inexpensive $1.8 million.

Glenn Gould needed no military hardware to attack the piano. Gould is one of Canada’s artistic treasures, but in 1957 he made a trip behind the Iron Curtain, becoming almost as famous with Soviet audiences as he was at home. Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey is a one-hour look at the pianist’s trip that also examines the struggle for artistic achievement under totalitarianism. Ready for broadcast on Canada’s pubcaster, the CBC, in August or September, this hour is being produced for about $500,000.

Although Gould could tame the Russian bear with music, most are tamed by the rigid bars of a zoo cage. The production company is working on the third series of Zoo Stories for the Life Network, with a projected July broadcast. Filmed at the Toronto Zoo, each episode examines the lives of the animals and their keepers in docusoap style. This 30 x 30-minute season is being produced for about $44,000 an episode.

Drop dead fashion

Fire up your charge cards. Big Boutique, the 26 x 26-minute series produced by Brighton Films for Electric Sky (also of Brighton), takes viewers on an international shopping trip. The series will look at global style, design and fashion trends, revealing the best and least-known hidden shopping locales in a number of well-known cities.

Boutique will enlist the input of celebrities, designers, guest reporters and style experts, to help uncover everything from funky fashions to great hotels. The series is being produced for E! Entertainment in the U.S., for Star TV in Canada and Latin America, and a number of other broadcasters in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. With the first 13 episodes delivering in August and the remaining 13 coming in January of next year, this series has a budget of about US$700,000 for all 26 episodes.

Electric Sky is now offering Tales of the Dead, a 13 x 30-minute series destined for National Geographic Channels Worldwide (a coproduction of NGCW, Electric Sky, Brighton Films and Skaramoosh). Budgeted at over $1 million, this series is a collection of ‘archaeological whodunits’ that test modern archaeologist’s skill by getting them to unravel ancient crimes. Computer graphics are used to re-enact the misdeeds and give viewers an idea of what the victims and perpetrators looked like.


Don’t drink the water

Libby, Montana, was once the site of the largest asbestos mine in North America. It also has the dubious distinction of being one of the most toxic towns in the U.S. For the film Libby, Montana, producers Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis of High Plains Films in Montana will interview a cross section of residents, and will capture the intense debate that rages at public hearings as the town seeks Superfund status – a designation that would make Libby eligible for the tens of millions of dollars needed to redress the poisoning of its water, land and people. The producers blend the current debate with compelling archival footage of ‘open pit’ operations during the mining heyday of the 40s, 50s and 60s, contrasting it with today’s morbid silence at the shuttered plant.

Libby’s residents find themselves beleaguered by medical and economic questions in the wake of the shutdown of the mine and the bankruptcy proceedings of the former owners (as they try to dodge legal liability and the massive cleanup costs). Abandoned by their former employer, residents are divided over where to lay blame – on shareholders, greedy company officers, or on government officials charged with regulating mining to insure the public health and safety in Libby and in the 30 states and six countries where products were shipped.

According to Hawes-Davis, ‘This is the story of a town confronting its painful past and struggling to define its future.’ An underlying question is whether it is too late to save Libby and, if it is, whether this can happen again in the 21st century.

The budget for the film is US$75,000, plus salaries and equipment, about half of which is outstanding. Libby is scheduled for completion in Fall 2002. Carl Mrozek


Ups and Downs

Lion Television, which recently expanded beyond London with offices in New York and Scotland, is tackling an as-of-yet-unnamed 3 x 60-minute series about ancient Greece and the Spartans. Spartan is a word that invokes the image of a simple, tough, uncompromising existence, but what were the Spartans really like? Historian Bettany Hughes will tackle the journey through the Pelopponese peninsula in Greece to uncover the mysteries of the people and the age, separating the myth and legend from historical fact. The series will air on Channel 4 in the U.K. Wrapping in October, the budget for this series is about US$235,000 per episode.

Flashing forward a few millennia, Lion will be looking for The Real Amy Johnson. This 60-minute film will examine the life and career of one of the pioneers of women’s aviation. Described as the ‘golden girl’ of the 30s, Johnson pushed the barriers both in flight and in equality, and became a national symbol along the way, with crowds turning out to greet her everywhere she landed. Johnson was lost, however, in the depths of the Second World War when her plane went down in mysterious circumstances. Ready for November (and airing on C4), this project carries a budget of about $280,000.

Natural History

Wild and crafty

For Paris-based Tele Images, the road ends in North America. After tackling Africa, the Amazon and Australia, ‘Chronicles of the Untamed Earth’ will finish with a 6 x 52-minute (or 12 x 26-minute) series called Untamed North America. Produced with France 3, Discovery Canada, Montreal’s Greenspace Productions and Exploration Production, the series will attempt to tackle the fauna of one of the largest land masses on the planet. Echoing themes found in the other series, North America will follow the migration of the caribou, the evasive path of the puma and the wild life of the North American grizzly. Footage for the series will be shot until the end of this summer. The series has a budget in the US$1.75 million range.

They sit there in the corner of the room – ignored, overlooked, dismissed. Who knew they were plotting your doom the whole time? Okay, they might not be plotting your doom, but plants are far more active than we previously thought. Produced by Tele Images and Greenspace for France 5, Power Plants is a 6 x 52-minute series that looks at plants in a manner usually reserved for animals. The series will use macrophotography and fast motion camera work to demonstrate how plants fight territorial wars, how they seduce, and how they act opportunistically. The series paints them as active creatures, and strives to treat them like characters rather than green background material.

Topics range from the evolution of the flower and the first flowering tree, to the science that allows a 2,000-year-old seed to grow, to rare plant evolutions that scientists believe should have been impossible. Ready for this December, the budget for this series is $1.6 million.

Showing new stripes

India, Kingdom Of The Tiger, a copro between Virginia’s National Wildlife Productions and Primesco of Montreal, takes large-format viewers back to the early 20th century when Bengal tigers ruled the Indian forest. The story retraces the career of Jim Corbett, who started the tiger conservation movement in India after spending his career as a legendary terminator of the man-eaters.

The 50 tigers he bagged were responsible for 2,000-plus human deaths, but Corbett’s appreciation for the animal’s power and vulnerability inspired him to launch a conservation movement to stem their decline, which was being caused by over-hunting, poaching and habitat loss. He also helped create India’s first national park, which now bears his name. The goal of this 40-minute film is ‘not to preach to people, but to inspire them, by showing tigers as magnificent hunters and enduring symbols of beauty, power and grace,’ says NWP executive producer, Chris Palmer. This US$5 million film is directed by Bruce Neibaur and produced by Goulam Amarsy and wraps in the summer of 2002. Carl Mrozek

All things furry

Like most fuzzy, harmless-looking little creatures, some of Australia’s marsupials are killing machines with a lust for blood. In Tasmania, at least five different marsupials (cousins to the only somewhat ominous kangaroo) can be dangerous to their human neighbors and deadly to other animals who frequent their gum tree homes. Baby-Faced Assassins is a production of Natural History New Zealand and National Geographic Channels International that will be completed mid-2003. This one-hour is being produced for about US$300,000.

Wrapping in June, the partners will also produce a one-hour special called Yukon Quest. Running for over 1,000 miles from Alaska to the heart of the frozen Canadian north, this dog sled race tests both the mushers and their furry locomotives. The hour-long documentary will cover the race, and will also explore the relationship between the dogs and their human guides. Quest is being produced for about $190,000.

Life on the rocks

Ice Island documents an expedition aboard a 120-foot non-icebreaking vessel as a crew of scientists and filmmakers track the world’s largest iceberg, B-15b. The team travels 2,400 miles from the Ross Sea in Antarctica to New Zealand – braving 60-foot waves and getting trapped in pack ice along the way. They venture where none have dared, diving deep into the heart of the iceberg in 28 degree Fahrenheit waters. Director Wes Skiles used two Sony HDW-F900s (in Amphibico housings) to capture the spectacle for an hour-long TV special and a 70mm test film for a large-format theatre. ‘Progressive hd solved the multiple format issues and I got it all on the first try,’ Skiles said. The adventure will also be the subject of a National Geographic magazine article.

Ice Island is a collaboration of Florida’s Karst Productions and Chicago’s Kurtis Productions, with Bill Kurtis and Skiles as executive producers, and Jill Heinerth and Emory Kristof as producers. Co-sponsors include the New England Aquarium, the National Geographic Society, and The Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. The total budget is US$780,000 and the project wraps in Spring 2002. Carl Mrozek

A man of many lands

Abdi’s Story: Return To Africa is a biographical/natural history film, but it is also Michael Rosenberg’s first salvo as Peartree Productions (after the demise of Partridge Productions following its assimilation by Granada TV).

Abdi Jama has had an interesting life. Born in Somalia in the early 1950s, he was raised by relatives until ‘orphaned’ at age eight. He herded camels for several years before being reclaimed by his long lost mother. A stint with a large Texas oil firm in Saudi Arabia and a series of small miracles landed him in America, where he worked his way up the ladder to regional manager at AT&T. He earned an mba before ‘being called back to Africa’ decades later as a wildlife filmmaker.

Abdi interweaves his personal odyssey into the fabric of the story to convey his passion for Africa and its wildlife, which fill the screen two-thirds of the time. Abdi’s Story is also one of the few shot and narrated by a black African.

Abdi retains his strong bond to the land and its wildlife. Through Abdi’s eyes and voice, Rosenberg (a South African himself) presents a truly unique portrait of wild Africa, just when we thought we had seen it all.

Rosenberg intends this 52-minute story as a pilot for a series of African adventures hosted and shot mainly by Abdi. The budget chimes in to the tune of US$400,000. For both men, the film has been a labor of love that has lasted for the past three and a half years, and which hopefully won’t end when the production wraps this summer. Manchester’s Adrian Caddy will distribute Abdi’s Story. Carl Mrozek

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.